Steve James interview, Part 1

The Interrupters follows three “violence interrupters” in the Chicago area over the course of one year. Beginning in the summer, we meet Cobe Williams, Ameena Matthews and Eddie Bocanegra, who work for the non-profit CeaseFire, the brainchild of epidemiologist Gary Slutkin.

All three have direct experience on the streets. Cobe, whose father was murdered when he was twelve years old, spent many years in and out of prison. Ammena, who is Chicago gang leader Jeff Fort’s daughter, was once a drug ring enforcer. Eddie is haunted by a murder he committed when he was seventeen.

The idea for the film began with a New York Times article about CeaseFire, written by author Alex Kotlowitz, a close friend of James and a producer on the film. “Alex is a terrific writer. The article is very in-depth,” James says now. “It’s different to the film but shares some similarities. He spent time with the interrupters out in the streets to try and get a feel for the work they did; who they were as well as a more journalistic treatment of CeaseFire and the philosophy.

“It was a great jumping off point but I think we both realised we wanted it to be as immersive an experience as possible for the audience. We wanted to put in the time to help you feel what it’s like to live in neighbourhoods like these. I think that’s something a film can do more easily than even an in-depth article or a book. A film can give the viewer a visceral, immersive experience that’s hard to do on the written page. That’s really the kind of film this is. It’s not a film that engages in a lot of overt analysis. I like to think that the film is informed by an understanding of history and politics that make these communities the way they are. But it’s really a film that’s about the work being done on the street, on the ground level by people who are trying to do something about it. Day in and day out.”

At the core of this immersive documentary is intimate access to the violence interrupters and the people with whom they work. I ask James about the process of gaining both access and trust.

A film can give the viewer a visceral, immersive experience that’s hard to do on the written page.
“It can vary from person to person as to how that happens. Sometimes it’s an incremental thing. Sometimes there’s a level of trust that you think is there and you realise down the road it’s gotten a lot stronger. It happens as you get to know people. For instance Cobe was enthusiastic about being part of the film from the start. We started by filming around the table at weekly meetings, to familiarise ourselves with everyone and get them familiar with us.

“There were a couple of people we targeted as people we wanted to follow but we were open minded about who we would end up following because we didn’t know who would end up taking to this. Cobe had this incredible knack for getting us into difficult situations. When we first went out with him, even though he was enthusiastic, he tended to act differently with us out in the street than he would have normally. At a certain point we said to him: You’re talking to people as if you’re interviewing them instead of being you.

“It took him a while to get to a level of comfort where he was really just being himself. That was essential to getting people in the neighbourhood to look at us in a trusting way. If he’s acting funny around us, then they think there is something wrong. We spent a lot of time with Cobe in the car, just driving around the neighbourhood of Englewood [the location of the CeaseFire office]. That was his way of working. We spent a lot of time with him and it gradually got more and more comfortable for him and for us.

“With Ameena it was interesting. She didn’t tell us this but it was clear. She really didn’t want to participate in this project at first. She felt that if she got us out on a mediation and gave us a substantial interview she would be done. She’s been interviewed by news media before and that was all they needed. She didn’t quite grasp the concept of what we were trying to do.

“She was also a very private person. It took a while to get her to first even understand how comprehensive what we were trying to do was; the depth we were trying to reach. Not only with her portrayal but of the work she does. It helped to at some point to give her some of my past films. She did a weekend marathon binge where she watched three or four of them. Afterwards when I talked to her she said she understood more fully what we were trying to do. I think the subject matter of some of my previous films resonated with her. She saw that I’m not out doing celebrity profiles and covering topical events.

“The kinds of films I tend to do are about disenfranchised people. People on the margins. I think that resonated with her because that’s exactly who she was like and the kind of people she deal with. For the longest time, even after she was fully on-board, she didn’t tell us where she lived in the city. She didn’t know if she wanted to have us in her home. That was another barrier of privacy. At a certain point, we got to that place. We were able to interview her in her home. At that point really all the remaining barriers were down.”

The Interrupters screens in Australia as part of an exclusive ACMI season.

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About this Blog

Steve James just picked up the Cinema Eye Honors for best directing and feature documentary, as well as a nomination for the DGA Awards, the latest amongst a run of other prizes for his most recent film, The Interrupters. I spoke with the legendary director, best known for his seminal 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams, in Chicago. Part 2 of the interview is here.